In the food halls of Galeries Lafayette I saw a Chinese man in the checkout queue buying 15 or more packets of the fanciest Le Bordier butterby Wendell Steavenson / December 8, 2017 / Leave a comment
Sitting in a crêperie on the Brittany coast, high blue winter day, mussels on the rocks at low tide, half way through a mouthful of crispy buttery crêpe complète, the classic buckwheat crêpe folded over ham, cheese and a fried egg.
“It’s a great crisis!” said my friend Laurent, explaining how the specialities of Brittany—Kouign-amann, sablé biscuits, the very crêpes we were eating—were under threat. “There is a shortage of butter in France! It’s a catastrophe!”
In October the French press was full of alarmist headlines and pictures of empty butter shelves in supermarkets and reports of puff pastry workers being laid off. “La penurie du Beurre!” the cry went up. The Minister of Agriculture faced questions in the Assemblée Nationale. The European market price of butter has doubled since last year. Pâtissières and bakers were quoted as being worried about the higher costs and difficulties in sourcing from their usual suppliers. Butter was being delivered that had been frozen. What would happen to the Christmas specialities of Bûche de Noël and galette des rois without butter? The New York Times, the Economist, the FT and other august publications ran stories, unable to resist the irony of the French running out of butter.
The French themselves were less amused. For them, butter is elemental. They eat 8kg of butter per head per year, more than any other nation; the English consume only 3.2kg. It is breakfast (croissant au beurre), lunch (jambon-beurre), and dinner (where every recipe begins: “melt a knob of butter in a pan”). Butter is a point of national pride and identity. The threat of shortage touched a nerve, bringing back memories of the war, when there was no butter for years. This time a new invasion was to blame: the Chinese, who had, apparently, developed a taste for rich buttery viennoiserie.
But the situation turned out to be a little more, compliqué. The price of butter had indeed spiked from €2,500 per ton in April 2016 to €6,800 in September 2017. But the real problem wasn’t the Chinese, it was one of distribution. French supermarkets negotiate prices with the big industrial producers only once a year, in February, and as the price of butter had since risen vertiginously, the producers had sold their butter abroad on the more profitable open market. But in the meantime the French public had become so worried about running out of butter that they had begun stockpiling and a run on the supermarkets caused a real shortage.
Rigid French conglomerate practices notwithstanding, the huge price rise remains. What caused this? I asked Fred Monnier, the proprietor of my local café in Montmartre (more of a hip barista latte joint than an old school café-tabac, I confess) about it. He told me he was now paying 20 per cent more for all dairy products than he was at the beginning of the year and the boulangerie was charging him 10¢ more per croissant. He hadn’t yet changed his prices.
“Maybe I am too lazy!” Then he cocked his head to one side, “you have made me think now.” He calculated what this was costing him. “We use 60 litres of milk a week; that makes an extra €24.”
One of the café habitués, Jean-Philippe Favre, has a small shop nearby specialising in food from the Jura region. He usually sells a butter churned with sea salt crystals from Brittany, but his wholesaler said there was none to be had this month. As we talked, a furious debate broke out among the café’s clientele. It was all down to the French system of socialised economics, interfering, fixing prices, said some. Demand for butter had been rising since natural fats were declared healthy again, said others. It was the European Union’s fault because they had stopped quotas as part of their reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy in 2015 and the butter mountain had melted away. It was the middle men, the wholesalers, the industrialised dairies, who always look for a way to maximise profits; a shortage increased their margins. “The small farmer never sees the benefit,” said Fred, “and once the price goes up it becomes the new normal, it will stay like that.”
In 2008 there were food riots all over the world when global wheat prices rose precipitously and I spent three weeks in Egypt talking to bakers, agricultural economists and government officials trying to understand the convoluted links between supply and demand, subsidy and price. It was a frustrating exercise; I realised I would never manage to unpick the strands of cause and effect from the knots of the nefarious, genuine market forces and government intervention.
The agricultural innovations of the 20th century have proved Malthus wrong. Famine in the modern era is caused more by disruptions to distribution: war, blockade and hoarding, than the vagaries of weather and failed harvests. Forced collectivisation in Ukraine in the 1930s, the Great Leap Forward in China in the 1950s, the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, civil war in Ethiopia in the 1980s and in Yemen now. We in Europe are used to our peace and plenty, but it’s telling how quickly a faux shortage reveals our basic fears, how fragile our security feels.
French President (not the butter brand) Emmanuel Macron now faces the challenge of reforming the country’s food chain along with the rest of the economy. By the beginning of December French supermarket butter shelves are not quite bare, but some brands were unavailable and I noticed new unknown brands appeared as substitutes.
In the food halls of Galeries Lafayette I saw a Chinese man in the checkout queue buying 15 or more packets of the fanciest Le Bordier butter. Globalisation seemed all very well when it meant we could all buy cheap cashmere in Uniqlo; but now that the power and money has begun to tilt in the opposite direction, it feels a little more disquieting. How to manage the supply, demand, subsidy and protection of local and national and European Union and worldwide interests? I worry when larger forces threaten the cake that I want to have and eat too.
Especially as there is also, apparently—have you heard?—a global vanilla shortage.